The pain of non-response

When I attempt to communicate with people and get no response, I find it intensely painful.

Maybe I’ve just gotten sensitive about it and notice it more, but until a few years ago I do not recall speaking to people and being ignored, as if I hadn’t spoken. Now it happens frequently. By my understanding of manners this is appallingly rude, not only according to rules of etiquette but by universal human standards.

I have also noticed an increase in leaving electronic communications unacknowledged and unanswered. I don’t mean ignoring group emails or forwards or links. I mean ignoring personal messages.

I have been told many times by multiple people that this should not be taken personally and that in today’s world this is not an offensive behavior. Cultural norms change and hand-wringing only makes you bitter and keeps you stuck in the past. While I understand this argument, I find it unpersuasive and even depressing. Common behaviors that begin to feel familiar, then acceptable, then normal, then expected do not automatically become good. The belief that what has become common also becomes good encourages us to abdicate our moral judgment. And really, aren’t we selective in our passivity? There is judgment smuggled in when we accept former rudenesses as benign or as progress. We don’t accept all change this way.

I feel an urgent need to explain this pain, not only because pain by its nature seems to demand investigation into its causes, but, it appears to me that I find non-response more painful than most other people do, and I probably need to be able to explain why this is the case to others as well as myself. And maybe my explanation will inspire others to change their behaviors and their expectations of how others behave toward them.

This is my attempt at an explanation:

I think the pain of on-response is rooted in its deep moral ambiguity: it can mean many things, across a broad range of significance.

It can be purely accidental and insignificant. The attempt to communicate was not perceived. Or it can be a mostly innocent postponement or forgetting to respond, due to other more pressing things are going on. It can be an incapacity to respond, for reasons having nothing to do with the communication.

But crossing into the personal side of the spectrum of meanings, it can mean that the communication just isn’t seen as important enough to warrant a response. Or it can be an inability or unwillingness to respond for personal reasons, for instance feelings about the anticipated exchange. Or the silence might signal anger.

Or, worse, the non-response could be a sign of contempt. The contempt might be minor, for instance, a disregard for subjects or themes deemed unimportant. Or the contempt might be more serious: the speaker deserves no response. Or the contempt might be profoundly personal: the speaker is not worth the effort of a response.

The more the non-response is a pattern, the more likely the meaning of the silence falls somewhere on the contempt end of the spectrum. This is why non-response is offensive.

One of the key functions of manners is to keep alienating questions of these kinds from arising. Manners have us 1) signal our respect, and 2) offer explanations for behaviors that could be misinterpreted as disrespectful.

I do not believe the behavioral changes in response to the social media and rampant addiction to mobile devices are creating new norms of etiquette. I believe they are destroying manners and weakening human relationships. I believe general decay of manners (and in general of honoring social obligation) contributes to what some are calling a loneliness epidemic.

Respect is a fundamental human need, rooted in the affirmation that our existence is acknowledged and valued by the people around us. Social norms that allow us to disrespect others (even when that disrespect is not intended or felt as an emotion by the disrespectful) is creating a world that denies these fundamental human needs.

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2 Responses to The pain of non-response

  1. Barry says:

    Truth stings, as it should. You’re missive is making us squirm with uncomfortable conviction. Please don’t stop. Thank you, Stephen.

    • anomalogue says:

      Thanks, Barry. I’m worried this one might be too crabby. I was less interested in making people feel bad than describing something that is really painful to me and explaining what makes it so unpleasant.

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